The Ageless, Mythological Ichiro

Cleveland Indians radio announcer Tom Hamilton caught my ear earlier this week as I watched early season Indians/Mariners highlights. Back where it all began in Seattle, Ichiro Suzuki had just robbed the Indians Jose Ramirez of a home run over the left field wall. "44-years-old, playing like he's 24!" cried Hamilton, in a tone exuding both reverence and disbelief.

It truly was a catch one would see from a player at least 15 years Ichiro's junior, and is another addition to the lengthy highlight reel of Major League Baseball's most legendary Japanese import. Now in his 18th major league season, Ichiro is 28 hits behind Dave Winfield for 20th on the all-time list, as he solidifies what is already a Hall of Fame resume. It cannot go without mentioning however, that Suzuki did not make his American debut until the age of 27. Prior to that, he went directly from high school to the major league Japanese Pacific League at age 18. I'm not here to debate the relative strength of the Japanese major leagues, so for the sake of discussion I will consider that to be the start of Ichiro's "big league" career.

That was in 1992. Yes, Ichiro is in his 27th consecutive professional season, just one behind Hall of Fame legend Nolan Ryan, who played in 28 consecutive pro seasons from 1966-1993.

How about some cliché "let's put that into perspective" statistics, shall we? It's fun, what can I say. Since Ichiro made his professional debut in Japan, we've seen: five presidents in the Oval Office, the full commercialization of the Internet, the entire run of "Friends," and the entire careers of contemporary stars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Yours truly was in fourth grade when Ichiro made his U.S. debut in 2001. I was in diapers when he made his professional debut.

Here's a list of current big league stars that were born in 1992 or later:

* Bryce Harper
* Manny Machado
* Xander Bogaerts
* Kris Bryant
* Luis Severino
* Francisco Lindor

The list goes on. Ichiro had put up over 800 major league hits before anyone in that group had reached kindergarten. And since we're on the subject of hits, while no one will ever strip Pete Rose of the title of all-time MLB hit king, Suzuki now stands at 4,362 hits in his big league career, over 100 more than Rose. (Note: Rose did record 427 minor league hits)

Ichiro has appeared in 3,590 games, by the end of this season may very well reach 15,000 overall plate appearances. Rose is the MLB all-time leader in both games played (3,562) and plate appearances (15,890), but he had the benefit of 162 game seasons throughout his career. Ichiro never played more than 135 games in the Pacific League due to a shortened season, but his durability in America (160+ games played eight times) suggests he would have had no issue with the larger workload.

The 44-year-old has recorded 200 or more hits 11 times (10 in MLB) and hit .300 or better in 17 consecutive seasons from 1994-2010. He's swiped over 700 bases, and has combined his speed and excellent defense (10x Gold Glover) with surprising power, knocking 235 homers between Japan and the U.S.. Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer some have compared Suzuki to, at least offensively, had 136 home runs in his career.

While his resume is staggering, what exactly makes Ichiro mythological? Is it that, similar to the Negro League stars of the golden age, it's difficult to measure just how good he would have been had he played his entire career in the MLB? Is it that, after nearly 20 years stateside, we still rarely hear a word from the 10-time all-star? Is it his legendarily clean lifestyle and impeccable self-care, so disciplined it's left him extraordinarily well-preserved for a man his age, with 25+ years as a pro athlete under his belt?

The juxtaposition of the league's two oldest couldn't be more comical. On the one hand, you have Bartolo "Two Slices" Colon, actually five months older than Ichiro, defying the boundaries of just how out of shape one can be and still somehow be an effective big league pitcher. And on the other, you have Suzuki, who you're sure could bust out 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups at a moment's notice.

Ichiro has expressed desire to play into his 50s, uncharted territory for anyone besides the mythical Satchel Paige. Paige played his last major league season in 1953 at age 46, but played two full AAA seasons at age 50-51, and pitched three innings in an American League game for the Kansas City A's in 1965 at the ridiculous age of 58.

Fifty seems out of reach for Suzuki, but 45 could be feasible. In recent memory, in 2007 Julio Franco made his last big league at-bat at the age of 48, and was still a serviceable player off the bench in his age 45 and 46 seasons. Ichiro's days as a starter are numbered, but there isn't anyone better at handling the bat and the strike zone than he, which in addition to his still stout defense could preserve his ancient career into his late 40s.

Cooperstown awaits Japan's most famous ballplayer, the only question is just how gray he will be at his induction ceremony.

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